DUET FOR ONE at Birmingham Rep

As unpredictable as life can be, we as a species gloss over the fact that our lives could change drastically at any moment, without any warning. While recent events and news push this to the forefront, we carefully force this thought to the back of our minds so that we can function without fear in every step we take. While it is essential in everyday life, such repression doesn’t protect us from change. In fact, it can make any deviation from normality harder to accept.

Kempinski’s Duet for One looks at one such deviation within the life of successful violinist Stephanie (Belinda Lang). After being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, she is unable to play and can’t accept what her condition has taken from her. Persuaded by her husband, she visits psychologist Dr Feldmann (Oliver Cotton), who tries to help her face a future she had never expected.

Contrary to popular belief, the play is not based on the life of English cellist Jacqueline du Pré, but is instead a metaphor for Kempinski’s own life, affected by a series of life-changing moments. Reading this piece of information in the programme, which Kempinski states he has never previously admitted, gave the show greater depth. Now that the audience can see not only the story he had told, but also what motivated this tale, the connections became clear and highlights the strength of the writing. Written in 1980, the text is still relevant today, and doesn’t feel dated.

Both Lang and Cotton are well suited to their roles. There is clearly good chemistry between the two, and in many scenes they bring out the humour in the text, creating an engaging and interesting story. It’s therefore unfortunate to see some scenes – particularly early in the play – lacking the spark that brings the text to life. From this I can assume that less time was spent on parts of the play with less meat, yet these were the moments that required attention to maintain the quality that these performers are clearly able to reach.

However, it should be noted that the role of Stephanie was previously meant to be played by Jemma Redgrave, who had to withdraw from the project due to ill health. Given that Lang filled the role less than a month before the show’s premiere, she has done an incredible job. It is a shame that she had so little time to work on her performance.

The naturalistic office the play takes place in feels lived in. Shelves filled with vinyl and books, organised in various manners, shows that a lot of care has been put into the design of this show. Various minor costume changes between scenes also lend to the production, showing the way that Stephanie changes throughout the process.

Keeping a show entertaining with a small cast confined in a single set is no mean feat. Cotton and Lang manage to make this look effortless and natural at times, making the show a joy to watch once it is in full swing. With more time, this could have been a phenomenal production.  I don’t doubt that the show will get better as the run goes on: Lang and Cotton are great actors, unfairly hindered by last-minute complications.     ★★★☆☆     Jeremy Ulster   27the September 2017